By now, you must have heard of Wi-Fi 6E — I mentioned it briefly in this piece about Wi-Fi 6 as a whole. If not, well, you’ll learn all that matters about this new Wi-Fi standard here.
Dong’s note: I first published this piece on May 22, 2020, and updated it on February 6, 2021, to add additional relevant information.
Wi-Fi 6E: It’s Wi-Fi 6 with an additional 6GHz band
In a nutshell, Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6 that operates in the new 6GHz frequency band instead of the traditional 2.4GHz or 5GHz band.
The base speed remains too. Generally, you’ll get 600Mbps per stream via an 80MHz channel or 1200Mbps via a 160MHz channel.
So then why do we even need Wi-Fi 6E, you might wonder.
Why do we need 6E?
We don’t. We want it.
Wi-Fi 6 needs to operate in the 160MHz, or at least 80MHz, channel width to deliver top speeds.
There’s only so much space in the 5GHz spectrum. We only get a couple of 160MHz channels out of it — only two to be exact — and they all encompass the span of narrower (40MHz and 20MHz) channels and require the problematic DFS spectrum.
Since many existing older Wi-Fi clients only use 40MHz or 20MHz channels, all home Wi-Fi networks have to struggle between compatibility and performance.
Wi-Fi 6E deals with this spectrum shortage by using an entire frequency band, opening its hardware to more channels, including seven 160MHz channels or fourteen 80MHz channels.
As a result, Wi-Fi 6E devices will operate freely without the need to accommodate older Wi-Fi standards or spectrum regulations.
In other words, with Wi-Fi 6E, your devices don’t need to use 20MHz, 40MHz (which are also available in larger numbers), or even 80MHz channels. On top of that, you won’t have to be concerned about the potential sporadic, brief disconnections caused by radar signals if you live near an airport.
To understand this concept, imagine if a Wi-Fi band is a freeway, then channels are lanes, and we have this crude analogy: The 2.4GHz includes only small lanes for bikes; the 5GHz uses wider lanes for cars, buses, and trucks, and the 6GHz (Wi-Fi 6E) only has special tracks for a high-speed rail system.
And that brings us to the main shortcoming of Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi 6E vs. Wi-Fi 6: New hardware required
To use the new 6GHz band, you’ll need a new broadcaster (a router) and clients (phones, laptops, etc.) that support it. It’s like you can’t drive a car or ride a bike on rail tracks. None of the existing Wi-Fi equipment, including the latest Wi-Fi 6 routers, will work with this band.
(Initially, it was rumored that some new Wi-Fi 6 routers already have Wi-Fi 6E-ready hardware, which can be activated via firmware updates. However, by the end of 2020, this proved to be completely false.)
This shortcoming is the same as the move from single band (2.4GHz) to dual-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz) that took place back when Wi-Fi 4 debuted in 2009.
A new type of tri-band equipment
Similar to the dual-band case, for backward compatibility, you can expect any Wi-Fi 6E-capable router also to have a 5GHz band, and likely a 2.4GHz band, built-in. In other words, it will be a tri-band router.
Yes, we have existing tri-band broadcasters — like the Asus GT-AX11000, Netgear RAX200, or TP-Link AX11000 — but they all have one 2.4GHz band and two 5GHz bands, mostly to address the bandwidth issue.
In other words, traditional tri-band broadcasters of Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 standards have an additional 5Ghz band. A Wi-Fi 6E broadcaster needs all three bands (2.4Ghz +5GHz +6GHz) to be compatible with all existing and future devices.
(Come to think about it. We might find quad-band routers in the future — those supporting Wi-Fi 6E with an additional 5GHz or 6GHz band.)
Since a Wi-Fi connection occurs in a single band at a time, up to late 2020, we only needed dual-band clients (2.4GHz + 5GHz). With the 6GHz band’s availability, future Wi-Fi receivers will likely also be tri-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 6GHz).
The reason is for the 6GHz band to be successfully adopted, networking vendors need to keep devices compatible, regardless of the Wi-Fi frequencies being available at any given time. And incorporating multiple bands within the hardware is the only way to achieve that.
Wi-Fi 6E vs. other Wi-Fi standards
|Top Single-stream Speed||Operating Channels||Frequency Bands||Status|
|Wi-Fi 4||802.11n or Wireless N||2009||150Mbps||20/40MHz||2.4GHz and 5GHz||Legacy|
|Wi-Fi 5||802.11ac||2012||433Mbps||20/40/ 80MHz||5GHz||Mainstream|
|N/A||802.11ad||2015||Multi-Gig||2.16GHz||60 GHz||Limited Use / Obsolete|
|Wi-Fi 6||802.11ax||2019||1200Mbps||20/40/80/160MHz||2.4GHz and 5GHz||Mainstream|
|Wi-Fi 6E||802.11ax in 6GHz||2021||1200Mbps||20/40/80/160MHz||6GHz||Latest|
Does Wi-Fi 6E have other shortcomings?
Yes. And the shorter range is likely one of them.
In radio broadcasting, higher frequencies always mean shorter ranges: FM and AM radio stations broadcast in frequencies much lower than Wi-Fi.
The 5GHz band clearly has a shorter range than that of the 2.4GHz one. So, the 6GHz band’s range will be behind that of the 5GHz band.
Of course, this is assuming that the 6GHz will use the same power level (dBm) as that of existing bands since higher power can compensate for the higher frequency.
But if the shorter range turns out to be true, Wi-Fi 6E will probably not be a good band to work as the backhaul in a mesh system unless you have an open space.
Another obvious shortcoming is the cost. Tri-band and quad-band hardware require more materials and sure will be more expensive. Again, keep in mind you need both broadcasters and clients of the same standard to enjoy Wi-Fi 6E.
When will I see real Wi-Fi 6E hardware?
And then, the first Wi-Fi 6E broadcasters are slated to be available for purchase in the first quarter of 2021, with Asus, Netgear, TP-Link, and others introducing their own. Like the case of Wi-Fi 6, you’ll find Wi-Fi 6E routers way before you can get yourself a Wi-Fi 6E client.
Keep in mind, though, that this standard will not be certified until mid-2021 or so. Until then, hardware from different vendors might not work (well) with one another. And it will take the certification for clients to be available.
Also, note that even though you can also upgrade existing computers to Wi-Fi 6E via the Intel AX210-based adapters, similar to the case of Wi-Fi 6, there’s no guarantee they will work with the new broadcasters right away, if at all. In fact, Intel won’t make the AX210 chip support the 6GHz band officially until late Spring of 2021.
(That proved to be the case in my testing of the GT-AXE11000, which, by the way, is the most expensive router from Asus.)
That said, it’s safe to say with some effort, you’ll be able to experience Wi-Fi 6E sometime in 2021. How that experience turns out depends on many things, including firmware and software drivers on both sides (broadcasters and clients).
Wi-Fi 6E is indeed here. You’ll soon hear or have already heard a lot of rosy things about this standard. The new 6GHz band is a great marketing tool — who wouldn’t want faster Wi-Fi?
So, together with higher bandwidth, networking vendors will mention all sorts of snazzy references, like how Wi-Fi 6E is great for 8K video, VR, 5G, low-latency, gaming, and so on. Some of that might be true, but most will be just hype and exaggeration.
The truth is we won’t know how Wi-Fi 6E truly pans out till it’s fully out. And that will take time.
One thing is for sure: You won’t be able to use Wi-Fi 6E with any existing devices. So, realistically, 2022 is the likely earliest time when Wi-Fi 6E really plays a meaningful role in daily life.
When it comes to Wi-Fi, it’s always getting connected at the time of need and not having the latest and greatest that matters. And for the former, the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands will do for a long time.
Think about it, 5GHz has been out for more than a decade, and the 2.4GHz has never come even close to disappearing — it never will. The 6GHz will be the same. It’s an additional band that’s not meant to replace anything.
Here’s something interesting: As more devices support the new 6GHz bands, the two (2.4Ghz and 5GHz) will be less congested. So the addition of Wi-Fi 6E is a win-win for both new and old equipment alike.
That said, don’t hold your breath and wait for Wi-Fi 6E. Go ahead and get the equipment that serves your needs today. It’s always a good idea to give a new standard some time to fully mature before upgrading to it anyway.